Mouth That Roars

Bill Liblick has made a name for himself of National TV Talk Shows where he spouted his outspoken views from the front row. Now he offers you his opinion every week in the "MOUTH THAT ROARS" Column in the Sullivan County Post.

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February 26th, 2015

Does Welfare Fraud Matter?

There is a spin going around from some public officials that Sullivan County has been more concerned with eliminating fraud at the Department of Health and Family Services (DFS) than providing public assistance to those in need.

To further this spin, Sullivan County officials issued a press release last week to inform residents of DFS programs.


There has been a lot of finger pointing towards some members of the legislature, and some are even trying to use the HEAP debacle and the suspension and likely termination of Health and Family Services Commissioner Randy Parker for their own political gain.

The Department of Health and Family Services has been plagued for years with controversy and this goes way before the hiring of Randy Parker.

Providing people with HEAP, SNAP, and benefits they are entitled to have always been a big mess. And – That must finally end.

But Please – Let’s not rewrite history!

When Sullivan County slashed positions (across the board) during our economic crisis – few said by doing so at DFS would harm people in need.

Before this legislature took office three years ago there were over 34 vacant positions at DFS – Many of those positions would have been paid for in part by State or Federal dollars. So why were there so many vacant positions?

In fact, one legislator, Kathleen LaBuda, who is suddenly an activist for those is need, was one of the first to support positions not be filled so that tax dollars could be saved.

Smoking mirrors indeed – In this election year season.

The Department of Health and Family Services has always been beleaguered with one scandal after another, whether it be David Sager’s mysterious firing, to whistleblower complains, to allegations of fraud and abuse, to hiring outside entities to probe DFS.

At least $35,000 is now being allocated for new outside consultants to look into making improvements at DFS. Let’s not forget the over $50,000 spent in outside counsel looking into whistle blower complaints.

When one operates a Department that involves Social Services and Public Assistance one has to walk a fine line. One needs to administer the Department professionally, but there also needs to be an element of compassion. We are dealing with human beings and lives, and sometimes it should not be just about the money.

I think Randy Parker’s biggest problem was not that he didn’t care – It was that his personality and the image he presented was stone cold.

Parker did make improvements to the way we handle foster care and getting people in need of housing out of motels and placed in homes.

I honestly believe that none of the nine legislators are more concerned with eliminating fraud over providing services to people in need.

The simple truth is that many programs that expend public monies are often plagued with fraud. But, this does not mean that people who need services should be intimidated, frightened, or embarrassed to apply for public assistance.

With taxes at record highs, and employment opportunities being few and far between, hard working taxpayers are very concerned where their tax dollars are being spent. The largest portion of our taxes dollars goes towards Public Assistance Programs.

There are also allegations that some powerful people in Sullivan County financially benefit from our poverty. The contention is that members of this elitist inner circle (some even elected officials) are vendors and part of Limited Liability Corporations (LLC’s) that make money by providing services to people in need – More on that in the near future.

No one can deny that for a long time many Sullivan County taxpayers felt that we have become a destination “Easy Street” for those seeking Public Assistance – Attracting outsiders to move here.

The argument became that anyone who needs Public Assistance should receive it, but that fraud and abuse must end as well as the perception that Sullivan County is the place to go for Public Assistance.

The fraud unit headed by Gerard Dietz has reportedly been saving Sullivan County residents millions that would otherwise have been dispersed to individuals who falsely file applications for assistance and neglect to provide support for their children.

The pilot program Fraud Unit under the direction of District Attorney Jim Farrell is now up for review by the legislature for funding.

When the current legislature came into office in 2012, Legislator Cindy Gieger as Chair of the Health and Family Services Committee questioned why there had not been any fraud arrests during the previous five years – since other counties routinely had such arrests.

As legislators looked into the issue, they discovered that although the “Front-End Detection Unit” in the Department of Family Services reviewed applications and checked eligibility, there was not a “Fraud Investigator” per se to process criminal investigations of fraud. A resolution was passed to hire a fraud investigator for six months within the Division of Family Services and then review the results.

It was only after a fraud investigator was hired that a whistleblower complaint – that had been languishing with external investigations for over a year – was dealt with directly by the fraud investigator and brought to the District Attorney’s Office. That investigation led to the arrests of three Department of Health and Family Services employees. There was one employee in particular that showed other employees how to “game” the system from within. That had been going on for a long time and created a culture where abuse of the system was tolerated.

Another critical result of having the fraud investigator was that people came forward to say they had taken benefits when not entitled. Rather than being arrested, these people are making committed efforts to repay those funds. Those cases are on a ‘non-arrest’ log with restitution fees approaching $1 million dollars in tax money – whether it is County, State or Federal funding.

When the time came to review the initiative legislators voted to expand the initiative with a Fraud Investigation Team that now comprises three officers to put the team under the direct supervision of the District Attorney Jim Farrell. Under Farrell’s supervision there have been over 50 arrests made by the team – where for years there had been none.

District Attorney Jim Farrell told me that the Sullivan County Fraud Team is doing very important work. “With the high tax burden to residents in our county it is vitally important that the money that is received by the government is spent wisely. Indeed, it is the role of the legislature to be good stewards of the tax monies they receive from hard working taxpayers. This legislature was right to have created the Fraud Team to examine how our government was functioning and to focus on detecting and preventing waste, fraud, abuse and crimes against the taxpayer on all levels in our social service programs.”

Farrell said in the two years the unit has been in existence, over 90 individuals have been arrested and accused of ripping off the taxpayers by either obtaining benefits that they did qualify for or for attempting to do so. “The total amount of taxpayer dollars that are alleged to have been stolen is in excess of $525,000.00. In addition, the work of the unit has resulted in civil agreements for the repayment of an additional $330,000.00 in taxpayer monies. Criminal prosecution has a number of objectives and one of the main objectives of the creation of this fraud team was to prevent and deter individuals who would seek to rip off the taxpayer through fraudulent claims,” District Attorney Farrell noted.

Legislator Cora Edwards, who chairs the Public Safety and Law Enforcement Committee, told me, “We specifically put in timeframes in the resolutions so we could review and evaluate how the fraud investigation team is progressing as a new initiative. One of the concerns I had in the beginning was bridging the law enforcement culture and the social services culture. We have made course corrections when necessary, such as last year moving the fraud investigators from the Division of Family Services to the direct supervision District Attorney’s Office. I believe the restitution numbers alone – approaching $1 million dollars – demonstrates that the fraud investigation initiative has been worth the time and the effort.”

Edwards added, “I also want to take this opportunity to address what appears to be some confusion in a few media outlets: that somehow the mismanagement of the HEAP program was due to fraud investigations. The reports I’ve gotten said that the difficulties (in getting fuel oil to eligible folks in December and January) were due to a number of contribution factors: inefficient procedures and policies; cases being handled by too many people before being resolved; not being prepared in advance for such frigid temperatures (meaning that people were getting low on heating fuel over the holidays), that employees had to take comp and vacation time before the end of the 2014 year at the height of HEAP season or risk losing their accrued time – which is a policy issue, and newer staff not having enough time to be trained.”

“We need to go forward in a balanced way, respecting the fact that there are human beings in need in our community; and there are NY State and US Federal programs such as HEAP, SNAP (food stamps), housing assistance and workforce development to help those in need.”

Edwards concluded, “Those who set out to defraud the system are basically taking away from those in need. As elected officials, we are stewards of the public trust – as well as taxpayers’ money that funds these programs. We are entrusted to do our jobs with honesty and integrity.”

District Attorney Jim Farrell discussing the need for the Fraud Unit added, “Somebody has to stand up for the taxpayers and this fraud unit, comprised of police officers from my office and dedicated hard working county employees at the Department of Family Services Special Investigations Unit and Child Support Collection Unit, has done just that. I will be asking the legislature to renew the agreement with my office to continue the good work that this unit is doing to protect the taxpayers.”

What do you think?

Are we really more concerned with cracking down on fraud than helping those in need?

Do taxpayers really need a Fraud Unit?

Bill Liblick has made a name for himself on National TV Talk Shows where he spouted his outspoken views from the front row. Now he offers you his opinion every week in the “MOUTH THAT ROARS” Column in THE SULLIVAN COUNTY POST.

1 comment to Does Welfare Fraud Matter?

  • Bella Farquhar

    Absolutely we need the Fraud Unit to continue to crack down on the abuse that prevailed in this county for years. It would be poor judgement to eliminate a successful program , especially when it proved itself within its first year of operation.